Rural America’s Roller Coaster

Things were going well in rural America.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City credited small towns, specifically farming communities, with leading the country’s recession recovery in 2010.

Farm household incomes climbed. Agricultural exports reached new records. Buying power from the Heartland trickled out to the coasts. Farm policies came in well under budget. Crop prices for many commodities grew to help offset increasing input costs (if you think filling up an SUV once a week is expensive, try filling up a tractor or combine multiple times a day).

And the Fed said the good news should extend into 2011, unless something unforeseen happened.

It did, and Mother Nature rained on the parade. And rained and rained and rained — or in some parts of the country, kept the rain from coming at all.

Droughts have destroyed wheat crops in the Plains and have already cost Texas farmers and ranchers $1.5 billion, according to Texas A&M University.

Meanwhile, moisture made it difficult for many corn farmers to plant their crops — for example, only 11 percent of the Ohio crop was in the ground by mid May, compared to the normal 80 percent.

And don’t forget the floodwaters along the Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana and in the Red River Valley. Or the damaging spring tornadoes that hammered the Midwest and South. These disasters took lives and destroyed communities along with valuable farmland.

Bad weather is nothing new to farmers. They know the risks when they get into the business, and they hope there are enough 2010’s to offset the 2011’s. The question becomes: how do you weather the storm in a lean year to still be around for another?

That is where our nation’s farm policy comes into play — to provide some stability for our farmers and for the country’s food and fiber supply while limiting taxpayer exposure.

A good example of this is crop insurance. Farmers buy policies, made possible with government investment, to act as a cushion. When disaster strikes, private insurance companies cover the bulk of the losses, shielding taxpayers from tremendous risk exposure. But, without the public partnership, multiple peril insurance on a crop — something we take for granted on our cars and homes — would not be possible.

Banks also extend annual operating capital to growers — yearly loans that usually exceed the amount most Americans will borrow in a lifetime — without any knowledge of what the weather will bring. They are willing to make the loans because crop insurance and farm policies are in place to act as a backstop to the kind of farm financial crisis America experienced in the mid and late 1980s.

But for how long will that backstop be in place? Farm policy was cut sharply in 2006, 2008 and again last year—making agriculture among the only sectors to make a sacrifice toward deficit reduction. Still, farmers find themselves in the crosshairs yet againthis year.

A lot hangs in the balance as lawmakers determine whether crop insurance and other vital farm policies will survive.

Besides providing us all three square meals a day, the country’s 210,000 remaining full-time farmers underpin 21 million U.S. jobs and annual economic activity larger than most foreign countries’ GDPs.

Retired Army General and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Wesley Clark recently credited these men and women with being key to the country’s security, calling them “a thin green line standing between prosperity and disaster.”

As our country struggles to get back on its feet, and rural America picks up the pieces following a string of violent storms, it’s time to put an emphasis on holding the thin green line.

So this week, we are teaming up to bring this timely message to Washington.

Considering it’s all made possible for less thanone-quarter of one percent of the federal budget, it is under budget, and it has already contributed $15 billion toward deficit reduction, we have a good story that should resonate with everyone, regardless of their political stripes.

After all, not everybody farms, but everybody eats.

Authors: Teresa Scanlan, a native of Gering, Neb., is Miss America 2011. Larry Combest, a Republican from West Texas, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2002 where he served as Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Agriculture Committee. He currently lobbies for numerous agricultural organizations, including crop insurance agents.

This op-ed appeared on The Hill on June 6, 2011.